And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
Mark 8:27-30 ESV
These four verses are at the very center of Mark’s Gospel for good reason. The questions that Jesus poses to His disciples (especially the second one) and Peter’s answer to the second question are what the entire first half of the book has been building toward, as well as what the second half will be building upon as Jesus turns His attention toward His purpose for coming as the Christ. But beyond even that significance, this text calls for us to consider the very things that Jesus called His disciples to consider then: what does the world say about Jesus, what do we say about Jesus, and what will we do with what we believe about Him.
WHO DO PEOPLE SAY THAT I AM? // VERSES 27-28
After healing the blind man in Bethsaida, we now find Jesus and His disciples going north of Galilee again. This time, however, they did not pass northwest to the region of Tyre and Sidon but almost directly north to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. It is worth noting that this is a different Caesarea than the one that appears in places like Acts 10, where Peter led Cornelius’ household to faith, and Acts 23-24, where Paul was imprisoned for two years. That was Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea Philippi was very much beyond the region of Galilee and was even outside the rule of Herod Antipas, being ruled by Herod’s half-brother Philip instead. One commentator remarks on the significance of this setting for Peter’s crucial confession, saying:
The ancient air of Palestine was in the air, and the memories of Baal clustered around. The gods of classical Greece brooded over the place, and no doubt men heard the pipes of Pan and caught a glimpse of the woodland nymphs. The Jordan would bring back to memory episode after episode in the history of Israel and the conquest of the land. And clear in the eastern sun gleamed and glinted the marble of the holy place which reminded all men that Caesar was a god. There, of all places, as it were against the background of all religions and all history, Peter discovered that a wandering teacher from Nazareth, who was heading for a cross, was the Son of God.
Indeed, within this region named after Caesar, the self-proclaimed lord of all the earth, Jesus posed this very important question to His disciples as they walked: Who do people say that I am? His disciples then responded by saying, John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets. We would do well to remember that we have already seen some of these proposed answers once before.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”Mark 6:14–16
The news of Jesus’ mighty works had long since made their way throughout the land and into the ears of even Herod. And as soon as the news was heard, rumors of Jesus’ identity began to fly. Herod’s guilty conscience led him to believe that Jesus was a resurrected John the Baptist. Others believed that Jesus was the reappearance of Elijah, which Malachi predicted. Others that He was another prophet after the lineage of prophets.
What I find most interesting about placing these two passages side-by-side is that it clearly shows that the disciples were not exempt from hearing the rumors about their Teacher simply because they were following Him everywhere. They were clearly not in a vacuum and unaware of the world’s various opinions about Jesus. Instead, they likely had plenty of people pulling them aside to ask them who exactly Jesus is and to give the disciples their own opinion.
Of course, this question still hangs in the air today. Even post-resurrection, people have not ceased to give their own theories about Jesus’ identity. The most common today, that we have already addressed before, is that Jesus was simply a good man and a great teacher of wisdom. Indeed, just the other day, I watched a video where an actor was asked about his relationship to Jesus after playing two Christian roles. His answer is quite normal:
I had a very different relationship with the concept of Christ, and I’m pleased to say that I like him. I love him, I would go so far as saying. He was a pretty brilliant man when he was alive, and still remains an amazing spiritual symbol of simple stuff like goodness, loving thy neighbor, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Indeed, just as none of popular answers that the disciples gave were negative, so too does the world largely view Jesus in a positive light, generally thinking of Him fondly rather than with vitriolic hatred. Jesus’ claims of exclusivity are often simply dismissed as being added later by Christians who departed from Jesus’ original mission of teaching kindness to all. Having a positive connotation of Jesus is, however, not enough. Jesus did not come to teach kindness; He came to defeat sin and restore us to God. And those who love their sin end up hating Jesus when He confronts their longings and desires. Let us never forget that the people of Jerusalem praised Christ one week and called for His crucifixion the next.
YOU ARE THE CHRIST // VERSE 29
While the question of what others think about Jesus is a valuable one, Jesus’ second question is far more important: Who do you say that I am? Again, this is the question that the entire first half of Mark’s Gospel has been building toward. He, of course, began by informing us that Jesus is indeed the “Christ, the Son of God” (1:1), yet beyond that point, only the demons have seemed to possess any real clarity on the identity of Jesus.
Furthermore, we know that Jesus is not posing this question out of nowhere. In 4:41, we saw that the disciples were asking one another after Jesus calmed the sea, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Since that moment, Jesus continued to feed His disciples signs of His authority and divinity. He drove a legion of demons into the sea. He raised the dead. He healed the sick. And He sent them out to do the same. Of course, we also observed last week how Jesus constructed His ministry since they returned from their journeys by feeding two large crowds of people and healing both a deaf and blind man. All of this has been calling the disciples to see and hear the reality of who Jesus is. Is He a mere prophet, or is He the Son of God? Is He a good teacher, or is He the long-promised Christ, come to reverse the curse of sin? It all comes to a point at this question: But who do you say that I am?
Peter’s response, with the apparent agreement of the others, is simple: You are the Christ. Matthew’s Gospel shows us that Peter’s answer was a bit longer than that and that Jesus also had some crucial words in response.
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.Matthew 16:16–20
As is typical of Mark, his account is stripped down to the core of its message. Yet we should remember that what isn’t said can often be just as important as what is. By presenting only the barest of version of Peter’s response, Mark is focusing all of our attention upon the reality of that statement. Matthew’s Gospel quickly moves on to wonderous words about the unstoppable kingdom that Christ is building through His church, yet Mark clearly wants us to simply linger upon the reality that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the seed of woman, offspring of Abraham, and son of David. At last, their vision seems to be clear. The disciples seem to finally be hearing with ears and seeing with their eyes the identity of their Teacher.
And we should not ignore the tremendous weight of this confession. The Christ was both theologically and politically anticipated. Theologically, the entire Old Testament pointed toward the Christ’s coming. The first promise came immediately after humanity’s fall into sin, where God promised to send one who would crush the head of the serpent. God then promised that the Christ would be Abraham’s offspring through whom the whole earth would be blessed. God promised the Israelites that the Christ would be a prophet like Moses. God promised David that the Christ would be one of his descendants and would have an endless reign. God, likewise, revealed to Daniel that the Christ would establish an eternal kingdom that would cover the earth. And the list goes on and on. Jesus was absolutely correct whenever He said that the Scriptures “bear witness about me” (John 5:39).
But the Christ was also politically anticipated. God revealed to people like David and Daniel that the Christ would be a king; therefore, the Jews anticipated His coming reign. Since the Babylonian Exile, the Jews had only a brief time of relative self-governance under the Hasmonean dynasty, and they longed to be a free people again. Therefore, many men throughout the years rose up and (either directly or indirectly) claimed to be the Christ. They would gather men for a revolt and be squashed by Rome. Gamaliel, the Pharisee who taught Paul, actually gave a word of warning about such things to his fellow Pharisees in Acts 5:35-42. The context is that the Pharisees were furious that the followers of Jesus continued to proclaim Him as the Christ after His death, and Gamaliel then recounts a couple other would-be Christs.
And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
Furthermore, when the council brought Jesus before Pilate to be tried, they said, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2). Thus, for Peter to make this profession in a region named after Caesar was a serious matter. It was a dangerous confession, and it still is today. Ryle notes that:
We too must be ready to confess Christ, even as Peter did. We shall never find our Master and his doctrine popular. We must be prepared to confess him with few on our side, and many against us. But let us take courage and walk in Peter’s steps, and we shall not fail of receiving Peter’s reward. Jesus takes notice of those who confess him before men, and will one day confess them as his servants before an assembled world.
TELL NO ONE // VERSE 30
The first half of Mark’s Gospel concludes with a familiar but still somewhat surprising sentence: And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. Again, this is the messianic secret that is so frequent in Mark, so it should not surprise us. After all, Jesus just told the formerly blind man not even to enter his village lest he should make the healing that Jesus worked known in Bethsaida. Yet it still is rather surprising because it comes immediately after such a profound moment within the Jesus’ ministry. Now that the disciples have confessed Jesus’ identity, we would imagine that Jesus would finally be ready to “go public.” Their vision of Him has been clarified, so they should be able to tell everyone about Him now, right?
Not so much. As we will see next year in the very next passage of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples do not see with as much clarity as they may believe. Following Peter’s confession, Jesus immediately begins to teach His disciples His primary mission as the Christ: to suffer, die, and rise back to life. But Peter, who just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, pulls Jesus aside to rebuke Him for such words. You see, Peter and the rest of the disciples correctly saw that Jesus was the Christ, yet they still did not understand what exactly that meant. If they had gone out proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ, they would have essentially been preparing for a political revolt and conquest.
Yet Jesus was preparing for another kind of conquest. He was preparing to work the greater Exodus, to deliver His people from an oppressor far more wicked than either Pharaoh or Caesar. He was making Himself ready to crush the serpent’s head, to defeat sin once for all by becoming the perfect and final sacrifice. This Christ, this king, would not liberate His people with the edge of His mighty sword but with the spilling of His own infinitely holy blood. He would not conquer by killing but by dying, taking our sins upon Himself and canceling them out upon the cross.
The disciples did not understand this, so they were told to keep Jesus’ identity a secret for a little while longer. But that would not always be the case. Before His ascension to the right hand of the Father, Jesus gave His church this command:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:18–20
Indeed, as we just read in Acts 5:42, after being beaten and warned not to proclaim Jesus, we are told that “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.” If we too confess Jesus as the Christ and understand the good news of the salvation that He worked, this is our calling as well. The time of secrecy has passed. Let us, therefore, gladly proclaim to the world that the true and eternal King has come.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, 192.
 Spurgeon comments that this “was Jesus’s usual way, when he took a walk with his disciples, to spend the time in holy conversation. It would be well if we always did the same. We might do much good, and we might get much good if we made our Lord Jesus the theme of our talks.” Although we do not today do much travel by walking, we may easily apply this principle to the car and ask ourselves if we are using our drive times wisely to converse about eternally significant matters.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 130-131.